In light of one of his recent film projects, Suddenly Single, Isaiah Washington spoke exclusively with 24WiredTV about playing the antagonist of the movie, as well as more of his acting accomplishments–such as accepting the part of the notorious D.C. sniper, John Allen Muhammad, in the upcoming Blue Caprice. Washington also touched upon the meaning and message of his memoir, A Man from Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life. Plus, find out the surprising reason Washington became an actor in the first place.
24WiredTV: Would you mind telling us about your character in Suddenly Single?
Isaiah Washington: He’s a bit of a narcissist, like the writer, David Talbert. [laughs] He’s a self-proclaimed narcissist. And in lieu of that, he seeks love [outside of his marriage] and finds out that that’s not really authentic at all. By the time he realizes that, he’s already lost his family. I was attracted to that. That male ego, the sense of hubris. I was joking about David–we’re both married men; we’ve talked about what it is to be married, and more importantly what it means to stay married. He had some pretty provocative ideas and philosophies for that character that I certainly didn’t agree with, but it scared me. I’ve been looking for projects that make me extremely uncomfortable, that completely take me out of my comfort zone. Because it gives me something to do, something to strive for outside of myself. And this character–he’s so unlikeable, he’s likable. “I don’t want to like this guy, but he has a point.” I’m an actor at the end of the day, when I’m called to do it, and it was a heck of a journey.
24WiredTV: What was it like working in Talbert’s signature theater/film format?
Washington: We were doing a full on play before five cameras. I’d only heard about David Talbert, and I’d always respected him and his work, but meeting him and his wife and watching how they do what they do, in that medium…of crossing live theater with the medium of live taping a sitcom, and also film language. This guy is using three mediums, one of each I’ve been a part of: theater, television and film. So I got a chance to use three separate muscles for a character that took me on a wonderful ride.
And it certainly took the audience on a wonderful ride, because the thing that was the most interesting to me, is: how were we going to end a story–end a relationship at the beginning–as soon as the curtains come up? In the first ten minutes, we end a relationship, and then have something to talk about. Who does that successfully? You disappoint the audience to the nth degree, where everyone goes, “Okay, the show’s over, let’s go home,” but then have another 89 minutes? Oh my god. So I’m glad that I was a part of that process. I was glad I was able to serve David’s vision for this character. Hopefully people will respond to it as viscerally as we did when we decided to collaborate.
24WiredTV: How did you adjust to that unique shooting format of Talbert’s?
Washington: He needed the experience and the understanding of an artist that could commit to what he wanted, and obviously have the background where I understood how to walk in a theater, how to project. And also understanding camera angles–how to position myself, and not overact or underact, or not act at all for close-ups that he required with his five cameras. And also just understanding timing. It is not easy. Many jokes that we did in rehearsals, the one that everyone laughed at, every single time…didn’t work in front of a live audience. I’d blanch, you know? I was expecting a laugh there, but, “Oh boy, it didn’t come.” You gotta keep pushing forward to get to the next joke. So that was a delightful experience for all of us involved in that.
24WiredTV: Why did you write your book, and what does it mean to you now that it’s finished?
Washington: My story is clear in there. I think a lot of people will be surprised to find out why I became an actor. I did not become an actor to make $100 million in the industry, or become the next Denzel Washington. I’m a social scientist at heart, and I became an actor because of “the negative” while I was in college, amongst my own community–that’s what I call “intra-racism.” And it had something to do with the issue of light skin and dark skin in my community. “Good hair” and “bad hair” in my community. Why someone chooses to wear an afro or a weave. There’s different forms of why, in this post-slavery syndrome, we still feel we have to assimilate or atone for certain things just to be accepted in this society. So I decided to take my aesthetic, that was considered–from the ’70s through the ’80s–as a “negative.” In my community we’re aware of it. And most people outside of our community are aware of it, of this unfortunate stigma, of being too dark and unattractive to be accepted by the masses. And I decided I was going to become an actor and put myself on a 10-year plan, learning to get into this medium so I could prove a point. And that is to take my image, and make it beloved around the world. Well, I was successful at that. That “Dr. Burke” brand [from Grey's Anatomy] is still well-renowned. And my name, Isaiah Washington, will forever be synonymous with Dr. Burke. So you would be surprised to know that’s why I became an actor.
But my ultimate goal is to address the issues of the continent Africa. I’m a Pan-Africanist. And I’m very interested in knowing that humanity needs to wake up say, “Look, we all come from the same place, here. Why are we treating each other so horribly? Why are we not taking this planet seriously?” And I have some concepts and ideas about DNA that I feel strongly about, and that’s what I documented in my book. So people can start dialoguing less about what separates us and more about what truly, truly connects us. This is not just going to church every day and having a religious belief. It’s genuinely having a spiritual and scientific support system to say that “enough is enough.” This thing called “race,” if you really look into it, it’s an acronym for the Royal African Company of England. It does not exist. So we’ve been lied to with certain words for a very long time. So let’s get back to the business of being human, shall we?
24WiredTV: What attracted you to the role of the D.C. Sniper, John Allen Muhammed, in the Blue Caprice film?
Washington: Another piece that scared me. Once you get to the pinnacle–and I did, and I have, and I’m proud that I’ve worked over 25 years to finally make my statement, with my aesthetic, with my intellect, with my performance skills, and Dr. Burke–what can you do after that? So I decided, because I’m very competitive, that I’m competing with myself now. I’m being very strategic and picky to find things that are going to be as provocative and controversial and leave people dialoguing about not just my performance but about the entire piece. And I’ve been waiting for the right kind of character to come along. I think it’s really working out for me. I have no agent, no manager, it’s just all the right projects are coming because that’s the prayer I’m putting out into the universe, like Kahlil Gibran. So this piece scared the bejeezus out of me. [Director] Alexander Moors is the co-writer and a wonderful filmmaker. He did the video with Kanye West called “Runaway.” As soon as I saw his vision for that, I just agreed to do the piece. We’re quite sure it’s going to be a darling for the Sundance Film Festival, and be extremely controversial. And that’s what I like. Go back to the early days of Spike Lee, and when you saw his movies, whether you loved it or hated it, you knew you were going to be debating it.
Photo courtesy of IMDB.